Café Culture

When spending a significant amount of time in a town or city, there are two things I like to be sure of; one is where I can get a decent cup of coffee in nice surroundings, and the other is where I can go to the toilet. I’m about to write about the former, because an article about the latter would just list ‘Debenhams; by the Covered Market; underneath Magdalen Bridge’, and wouldn’t be much of a read.

The trick to finding good cafés is in not going straight into the first Starbucks you see; its been a year and three months and I’ve still never been in an Oxford Starbucks which I’m quite happy about, particularly as they don’t serve actual coffee but buckets of caramel-drizzled cream instead.

It’s all about avoiding the easy, safe choice. You know what you’re getting from a Starbucks (and for that matter, a Columbia Coffee, a Costa Coffee, and a Café Nero as well) so when you feel in the mood for some comfy seats, oversized muffins, the distinct strains of The Decemberists in the background and a slight caffeine kick, you know where you can go. In the same way, you know that no matter where you are in the world, you can go into any branch of McDonalds and receive a disappointing, tasteless Bacon Double McAngina with medium fries — it may be bad but at least it’s consistently so.

“You know what they call a Bacon Double McAngina in France? A L’Angina avec le lard

But every town has at least one good coffee shop, you just have to track it down. I even found one in Weston-Super-Mare once, a nice little place in a 1960s Italian style and run by a man who served freshly-made Italian coffee and hot chocolate with flavours like ‘Granny’s Snickerdoodle’, which at the time sounded dangerously interesting to me and not, well, a bit twisted.

So Bristol has The Boston Tea Party, Canterbury has Le Café St. Pierre (complete with surly Frenchmen) and Oxford has about half-a-dozen or so that I frequent. If I’m in a hurry then there’s Café Coco for an espresso, but if I’ve got a bit more time to kill then it’s The Grand Café for a leisurely cafetière of Dark Columbian. If I’m in the city centre then it’s into the Covered Market to Georgina’s (if it’s not too busy)…there’s usually somewhere I can go.

I’ve been weeping like a willow

I like cafés, in the same way that most English people seem to like pubs. I don’t much like pubs — smoky and claustrophobic and occasionally entirely at the mercy of a crazy drunk — but I find cafés to be inviting, warm and comfortable, they’re places where I can open my laptop or open a book and nobody minds either way. Alternatively I can chat for an hour with a friend or two over cups of coffee and not have to shout over the the awful jukebox that’s playing Is This The Way To Amarillo? for the third time that night, or the thumping Cuban dance music that’s played at high volume for the benefit of the clubbing Friday-night crowd.

The ideal situation for me would be if these cafés opened well into the night, but they tend not to, or if they do then they stop serving coffee and start serving cocktails which isn’t quite what I’m after. Still, at least with cocktails you get to see the barmen do one of those funny little dances like they’re Tom Cruise in 1988, and try as I might, I’ve never managed to get anyone to do a dance while serving me coffee.